Austin Hedges has always gotten rave reviews about his defense and intangibles with the Padres pitching staff.
However, he has not received the same acclaim for his offensive production.
The criticism is warranted as he has a miserable 45 wRC+ and .176 average in 29 games so far this season. The Padres are holding out hope that he can bat above his weight (206 pounds) but it is looking more and more like he is a glove-first catcher who strikes out a lot. He is striking out even more this season (36.7%) than he did last year (29.3%).
Hedges now has almost 700 career plate appearances.
Historically, that is a pretty good sample size in determining what kind of hitter you are. That’s not to say someone can’t make major changes and reinvent themselves, but after that significant sample size of plate appearances, Hedges is batting .196 with a 29.3% strikeout rate and 54 wRC+ for his career, less than inspiring numbers.
Having lived near Seattle for over three years now, I have become well acquainted with our “Vedder Cup” rivals from the north, the Seattle Mariners.
They faced a similar dilemma with their third overall pick from the 2012 draft, catcher Mike Zunino. Zunino was a rare case where he only spent the remainder of that 2012 season he was drafted in the minor leagues then he went straight to Seattle and the big leagues in 2013. He played 52 games for Seattle that year with numbers you might expect from someone who was rushed to the majors, a .214 average with five homers.
In 2014, he was the main guy. He put his power on display with 22 homers and .205 ISO. However, his strikeout rate crept north of 33% while his average struggled to stay above .200. The Mariners knew Zunino would be the catcher of their present and future, just like Hedges is for the Friars. Zunino, like Hedges, is widely praised for his defense and handling of the staff. He is in the top 10 for framing strikes and gaining calls.
Seattle did something unpopular but necessary. They had Zunino start his 2016 season in Triple-A Tacoma. He played the first 79 games of that season in Tacoma, which I am sure was humbling for a player who had previous caught 295 major league games and swatted 38 home runs. But he did it and worked hard, putting good numbers that merited a call up on July 2nd.
After that, he had a 115 wRC+ in 55 games, the best of his career. In 2017, he got off to a slow start with the big league club and was briefly assigned to Triple-A again. After just 12 games, he was right back up and ended up having his best offensive season of his career with a .251 average (astronomical from his previous career high), 25 home runs and a 126 wRC+. He was still prone to the strikeout but his overall numbers had improved drastically. He was humbled and tweaked his approach enough to make big changes at the plate.
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Zunino still isn’t going to get confused for Johnny Bench or Mike Piazza, but he is doing just enough with the bat to fuel the Mariners during their current playoff push. His 80 wRC+ this season is better than Salvador Perez and Russell Martin and he is second among catchers with 12 homers.
The Padres are counting on Hedges to be the catcher on the next good Padres team. However, if he continues to be a liability with the bat, that may change. The Padres may want to consider doing the same thing with Hedges the Mariners did with Zunino. To be fair, Hedges had four seasons in the minors before seeing major league action, three and a half seasons more than Zunino. The Mariners essentially sent him down to get the development he never had.
Hedges may just be an awesome defensive catcher who can’t hit .215 with a strikeout rate near or above 30%. With the Padres still about a year or two out from really making a push, they may want Hedges to get a good, solid few months in El Paso before throwing him in there again. A.J. Ellis has been more than the Padres could have asked for in a backup catcher, batting .319 with a 135 wRC+ in limited action. He could take over the main catching duties for Hedges, while sharing with the likes of Raffy Lopez or even Brett Nicholas.
Hedges wasn’t rushed to the big leagues like Zunino was but it is clear something is missing at the plate. Since his return from the disabled list, he is hitting .188 with a 35 wRC+ and 35.3 strikeout percentage, much of the same.
Catchers don’t have to hit .275 with 30 home runs to be valuable. However, there is a fine line between doing just enough with your bat when your defense is outstanding and becoming a liability to the lineup. Hedges is walking that tight rope and may benefit from some added reps with less pressure in Triple-A, where he has played just 110 games total.